Steve and Jemjahn go to Thailand, 2003
20. Looking for Our Old House
The layover in Bangkok gave me the chance to look for our old house, where I first met Jem.
Three of us GIs were stationed at Bang Pla, a large US Army Signal site 30 miles outside Bangkok. Pooling our money let us share the rent for a house in the city, an escape from our un-air conditioned, concrete barracks in the middle of a swamp.
We found our own little Shangri-la off Sukhimvit Road. Though a small compound, its walls surrounded: a fishpond; separate servant quarters; six different types of fruit trees; a house with a one-car garage, simple but spacious kitchen, hardwood floors, large Casablanca-style ceiling fan in the living room, and two bathrooms, one on each floor. And a second smaller, 1BR/1BA house.
All for $90 a month.
That’s because it wasn’t in the Western sector and didn’t have air conditioning. Oh, and not $90 per person, but $90 total. Even in 1968, when we lower enlisted GIs were making just $500 a month, $30 per month for rent was very affordable. Comparable houses in the Western district – if with air conditioning and usually a swimming pool – cost three to four times as much. We three musketeers thought our place was perfect.
Except that it needed someone at home on the days when all three of us were at work. Otherwise our stereos, cameras and other debris that young men acquire would disappear.
Which is how I met Jem. Recommended by the Thai wife of my boss, she became our housekeeper. I quickly came to admire her honesty, humor, and OK, great farm-girl legs, visible when she wasn’t wearing a sarong, as when she wore a skirt to her sewing class.
Though no believer in divine intervention (www.stevenkohn.net/WhyBadThingsHappen) or "soul mates," I do sometimes wonder if Jem and I weren’t brought together by a higher power.
The first day in the house, our landlord, Kuhn Prasit, an older man who spoke good English, sent us a young woman to be the housekeeper. Her long black hair reached down to her pink slacks, almost down to the seat on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle. My buddies and I looked at each other, saying without words that even if the girl could be trusted, her boyfriend would clean us out. We gave her some money and an apology for her trouble, along with a face-saving excuse why it wouldn’t work.
The next day Jem arrived, brought over by her aunt, who knew somebody who knew somebody else … who knew my NCO’s Thai wife. Unlike the girl the day before in her pink pants, Jem arrived in a sarong. She had a farm girl’s haircut (as if a bowl were placed on her head and all the hair below it snipped straight off), she couldn’t speak a word of English, and she was clearly nervous about working for three young American males.
Fortunately, she believed my NCO’s wife that we were “good men,” and if there were any problems, her husband would be all over us. The pay wasn’t bad, and now she'd have a place of her own in the separate, if spartan, servant’s quarters, much better than the room she shared with her aunt in a Bangkok slum.
Six months later, having “lived” with her without really “living” with her, we got married. Along with an upbeat personality, Jem was easy on the eyes and a great cook. She also had a maturity beyond her years, as I saw one afternoon when an elderly woman in rags came to the gate begging for food. Jem brought her into our compound and spoke with her quietly and with concerned respect. Ten minutes later, when the old woman left holding some coins and food, it was not just my imagination that she was smiling and standing straighter.
In later years of our marriage, I came to often see how remarkable my Jemjahn was. On the day I write this, her 57th birthday, she is still a child at heart, with all of a child’s enthusiasms and lack of self-control.
Until the going gets tough. Then she’s calm and composed, in full control of her emotions, always saying and doing the exactly right thing. She was a wonderful mother of our small children, as nurturing and protective as could be without also being smothering.
We’re all unique individuals, but Jem is something special. I don’t know what I did in a past life to have deserved her in this one. Opposite in some ways, alike in others, especially the important others, we bring out the best in each other. I do love her deeply.
Where was I? Oh, yes, I couldn’t find our old house. How could I have lost it? I could picture it exactly: on a little lane off Soi (Street) 22, on the right, just a few hundred feet down from the corner. This was the house where I carried her up the stairs in my arms, as across a threshold, the house we agreed to marry, the house where our married life began. It was a house that had so many memories for us, and I couldn't find it.
I walked up and down Soi 22 for two hours, taking every possible lane to the right. A few houses appeared to be in about the right place, but no, they weren’t our old one, no matter how they might have been modified since.
What was not seen back then on sleepy little Soi 22 was a 4-star hotel, the Imperial Queen’s Park.
New, impressive, and if you like skyscrapers, even attractive. But on Soi 22? A palace built on a sidestreet? Across from noodle shops?
The hotel summarizes for me the development of Bangkok. A modern skyscraper built on mud towering over tin shacks.
At one of the houses near where our old one might have been, a car stopped and parked. In my broken Thai I asked the driver if he lived there, and if this house had always been there. He didn’t know, he said, as he was a renter himself, only recently moved in.
My guess is that our old house and servant's shack were torn down to make way for a better return on investment. Can’t blame old Prasit; I’d have done the same, no doubt. That’s progress.
Back in the 1960s, when the canals were first being filled in, when I stood as a sidewalk superintendent at Bangkok’s first multi-story office building at nearby Soi Asoke, my thoughts were gloomy for Bangkok. The charm and leisurely attitudes of old Siam were doomed, I was sure.
Two weeks in Thailand, just two days in Bangkok, don’t give me license to conclude if I was right or not. But it’s become harder for me to argue with the sober military and civilian leaders who saw, decades ago, where the rest of the world, especially Asia, was going. The realities of a rapidly expanding population could not be ignored, and they took the steps they thought were best.
So far it looks like they were a lot more right than I was.